What Should You Consider Before Changing Your Attorney in a Personal Injury Case?
As your personal injury case comes along, there may be events that make you reconsider your choice of attorney. Maybe you feel you are not being represented well, or that the fees charged by your attorney are not worth the services being provided. Maybe your lawyer misled you as to when the case would be resolved.
Whatever your reasons for wanting a change of legal scenery, California law is clear. You are allowed to change attorneys at any point throughout your case, no matter what your reason may be.
However, making a change is a momentous decision. In most personal injury cases, your lawyer will work for you on a contingency basis. That means they’ll receive a portion of any settlement or money received after a trial. If they are dismissed before the case ends and a new attorney is hired, you’ll have to negotiate payment for the services provided by the attorney up to that point. In addition, you must be aware of the contingency fee your new lawyer will charge.
At Montgomery and Steele, we are experienced personal injury lawyers working in the Riverside area. Combined, we’ve spent years helping and winning cases for clients in all areas of personal injury law, including car accidents, wrongful death, and burn injuries. Here, we’ll walk you through the process of changing attorneys and whether you should seek different legal representation.
Fee Sharing Between Attorneys
After you have moved on to a new lawyer, the old one will want to be compensated for the services they provided you. The law states they are entitled to ‘reasonable value’ for their services once you receive money for a personal injury claim.
What this means in practice is hard to determine, and can vary greatly depending on the lawyer and the particulars of your case.
To avoid this issue, many lawyers will have an hourly rate written into their contract when they are hired that defines what a ‘reasonable value’ is for their services. If they are terminated at any point throughout your case, they can consult the hours they worked for you, multiply by their rate, and have a number for what they will charge you.
That means that if you hire a lawyer and they work 25 hours on your case with a rate of $500 per hour, they can claim $12,500 for the work they did for you. This amount will then be taken from any settlement or compensation you win in court.
Some lawyers, however, do not specify an hourly rate in their contract with you. This makes defining ‘reasonable value’ much more difficult. In these cases, it is often left up to how the case resolves and the amount won on the personal injury claim, as well as an agreement between the two attorneys on what services were provided for the client.
Knowing Who Gets What
What this all means is that the payment a terminated lawyer receives does not always reflect the share of the work they did for you. For example, say you hired a lawyer for a case and they were given a contingency fee of 20% when the contract was signed, meaning they were entitled to one fifth of any money you won from your claim. She states in her contract that, if she is terminated before the case is resolved, she is to receive $400 per hour she worked for you. If you terminate her after 20 hours, she is to receive $8,000 for services provided.
Let’s say you then proceed to hire another lawyer who charges the same 20% contingency fee. This lawyer is able to resolve your case in only 5 hours, for a settlement of $200,000. This means he earns $40,000. The second lawyer, despite working only ¼ of the hours of the first, earned $40,000, as opposed to $8,000 for the first lawyer.
No Predetermined Hourly Rate
However, if in the case outlined above the first attorney had not specified an hourly rate, their compensation would likely differ significantly.
Say the case resolves for $200,000, just as before. The lawyers are entitled to the contingency fee of 20%, here $40,000. Since the first attorney did not specify what she was to be paid, a judge might help allocate the legal fees based on ‘reasonable value’ for the services provided.
Again, this is vague, and varies case by case. If the judge feels that the first attorney performed more of the work for you, they may be entitled to receive most of the fee based on the fact that they did more to advance your case towards resolution.
In this case, the first attorney worked 20 hours as opposed to the 5 of the second. The arbitrator may determine that she did significantly more to resolve the client’s case than the second attorney, entitling her to a larger share of the fee.
However, it is also possible that the arbitrator will say, despite her working more hours, that she did not do more for the client’s case than the second attorney. Therefore, despite working more hours, she is not entitled to a greater share of the legal fee. It can be difficult to know exactly how much each lawyer contributed to the case. Therefore, fee sharing is far from an exact science.
Knowing When to Switch Lawyers
You may be frustrated with your legal representation and want a change. This is your right, but you should be careful about when you make the change. If your case has dragged on for years, that means your attorney will have spent a significant amount of time working for you.
If you try to terminate them now, a new attorney might be hesitant to represent you. That is because the first attorney will likely be able to claim a large portion of any legal fee based on the years of work they did for you. It may not be worth it for them to try to resolve your case. If they do it quickly, they won’t receive much money. If it takes them a long time, they will have committed to a significant workload where they are forced to split fees with another attorney.
Attorneys all have different approaches and styles. If you wait too long to switch lawyers, you risk bringing the new one to the party too late. Even if you feel that they are a more skilled attorney, it may be difficult for them to make a difference so late into the case. By switching representation, you may actually hurt your case.
We recommend acting as early as possible if you want to make a change. This will increase your odds of finding an experienced lawyer who is willing to take on your case, and increase the chances that they can make a positive impact on your case when they do.
Why You Might Want a Change
Although changing lawyers is something you should think long and hard about before moving forward, there are many cases where the decision is a good one. For example:
Your lawyer is not actively acting on your behalf
Your lawyer is not communicating with you, to the point where you believe your case is suffering and they are negligent in their duties
They are not properly licensed
They have acted inappropriately
They misrepresented their experience, accreditation, or skills
They have not been adequately prepared throughout the process, to the point where you feel your case has suffered
There are many other reasons, but these are all cases where a change in attorney would be appropriate and possibly even recommended.
But Before You Do
Before you do move forward with a new attorney, it’s important that you have your case organized and ready for your new legal team so that they can hit the ground running when they take over. You might:
Review your case with your current representation to see where you stand and what work has been done
Ask for an outside attorney to consult and review your case
Meet with the new attorney and discuss specifically what changes are to be made in your case and how they will represent you in a way that is more effective than your previous legal team
You deserve skilled representation in your personal injury case so that you get the money you are owed. You are paying a large amount of money so that you receive the settlement you deserve. If you feel your current attorney is failing to do this, a change is well within your rights. However, this decision is a significant one, and should be made with planning and much consideration. If you can, make the change as early as possible so that your new representation is able to move your case forward in a positive direction.
If you feel your current legal representation is letting you down, contact us. We are happy to review your case for free and see how we can better represent you. If we feel that we can’t do more for you than your current team, we will tell you. If we think that we can help, we will do everything in our power to win you maximum compensation.